But anyone who has travelled as extensively in Vietnam as I have has eaten a lot of spring rolls, so I feel like I have the credentials to judge this.
Now, when you think of spring rolls, your mind might cast to your local Asian food restaurant, where they're ordered by the giant frozen case, and chipped out to be fried as needed as a part of a combo plate for the daily lunch special. The spring roll you're thinking of is probably long and cigar-shaped, with a crispy golden brown wrapper that's almost impossible to negotiate with chopsticks.
You probably like to pour plum sauce on these spring rolls. (So do I.)
The spring rolls you know are filled with a motley assortment of odds and ends - anything from rice noodles to green peas. If it's a cheap "vegetable" spring roll, it probably only contains shredded cabbage, msg, and tiny flakes of carrot to maintain the illusion of vegetable diversity.
I am not talking about these spring rolls.
In Hanoi, an incredible array of things are wrapped and rolled in rice paper. They can be fried or fresh, filled with vegetables, herbs, fish, shrimp, pork, beef - pretty much anything that doesn't move fast enough to avoid being rolled. They're dipped in hoisin sauce or nuoc cham - a mix of fish sauce, lime juice, and other seasonings. And they're eaten anytime, as a part of a family meal, or as a convenient snack with a tall glass of draft beer, while looking out over one of Hanoi's many lakes. Any self-respecting Com restaurant will have a large tray of them for patrons to add to their take-away lunches. And I can well imagine, every family has their favourite version, and every housewife has her own recipe.
When I was in Hanoi this month, I had planned to travel to Sapa, in the northwest mountains of Vietnam, and to take a few days touring Halong Bay as well. The weather put a wrench into my plans, however, as a typhoon blew through cutting off a lot of the roads out of Hanoi. I found myself at loose ends for a day or two while I arranged alternate plans. A friend (and travel agent extraordinaire) hooked myself and Wendy up with an afternoon cooking class with Yen at Yen Cook House. This turned out to be divine luck, as it was here that I learned several killer Vietnamese dishes that I'll be writing about over the next few weeks. At Yen Cook House, I sampled some of the finest dishes I've ever tried in Hanoi - Yen's passion for cooking and Vietnamese food shone through the language barrier, and it was clear to see that his years spent working as a chef had given him a sense for how to season his dishes expertly. What impressed me the most, however, were his Hanoi-style nem - fried spring rolls. If you only ever cook spring rolls once in your life, (and you might only make them once; after all, it's a messy and tedious business, although the results are worth it) please make these.
If you've eaten a Hanoi-style nem before, you'll know that they differ from Saigon-style most obviously in their wrapper. I'm not quite sure what the difference is, but in the south, the wrapper is similar to those I often ate in Canada - I suspect it is somehow wheat-based. In the north, they use a pliable rice paper which fries up into light ethereally crispy layers that shatter into salty-sweet fragments when you bite into them. The nem are about an inch in length, to make them easy to eat in one or two bites using chopsticks. They're dipped in nuoc cham, a potent mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chilis, and garlic, which nicely cuts the richness of the pork fat and frying oil.
Step 1: The filling
Now, I'm going to give approximates here. Close is good enough in horseshoes, hand grenades, and hand rolls. Above, you see pictured Yen's filling. I will attempt to list the items.
- 4 or 5 dried chinese mushrooms, reconstituted and thinly sliced. (You want huong, or perfume mushrooms, if you have a Vietnamese grocery nearby)
- 1/2 a carrot, peeled and julienned.
- 50 g of bean sprouts, rinsed, drained, and cut into smallish pieces for mixing.
- 50 g of rice noodles, cut into smallish lengths.
- 200g of ground pork.
- 4 or 5 green onions, finely chopped.
- 2 tablespoon of fried shallots (available in pouches or jars in most asian food stores).
- 1 tablespoon of chicken stock granules (Knorr or Maggi).
- 1 teaspoon of ground pepper.
- 1 teaspoon of chopped garlic.
Step 2: The Rolling
If you can find rice papers that are bendy like these, they're ideal, since they won't need to be dampened for rolling. Odds are you won't be able to, so regular stiff round rice papers are fine too. Keep a bowl of hot water in your prep space, and soak each paper until it becomes pliable enough for wrapping. Set it down on a cutting board or plate, ready to roll.
Now this is one of the tricks I learned from yen to help create the beautiful, brown crispy coating of a Hanoi nem. Mix up a bit of water, cornstarch and sugar in a bowl. When you put the wrapper down, before adding any filling, take a swipe of this mix and pass it over the rice paper lightly, enough to barely coat it. Then, in the bottom third of the wrapper, place a tablespoon or so of mix. Roll the paper over once, and pat eat side of the filling lump to firm up the filling into a solid style log. Fold the right side of the wrapper back over the filling log; then do one complete roll of the log. Fold the left side over so that you now have a completely wrapped log of filling. Continue to roll the log until all the wrapper is wound around the filling. You should end up with a plate of these:
They should be roughly the length of your thumb.
Step 3: The Frying
Fill a deep frypan with cooking oil, and heat it so that the tip of a wooden chopstick sizzles when inserted.
Pop the rolls into the oil all together, and fry for 5 or 6 minutes, turning them once or twice, until they look golden, like this:
The second trick I learned was to pull them out of the oil at this stage to let them rest. If you're making these for a party, you could make them up until this point and hold them for later; or freeze them for use at another time - maybe for a bento? Then, just before you're ready to eat them, put them back into the hot oil, and fry again until they reach a burnished brown colour. Of course, I know that double-frying yields a perfect french fry; but I had never extended this logic to frying other things.
The final product:
The tomato rose is optional, of course. These are usually served with a light dipping sauce called nuoc cham:
This nuoc cham has been garnished with seeded cucumber and thinly sliced carrot. Yen's recipe is:
3 tbsps of vinegar
4 tbsps of water
1-2 tbsps of fish sauce
2 tbsps sugar
1 tbsp of lemon or lime juice
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 small red chili, chopped (optional)
Fresh ground pepper
Mix everything together until the sugar dissolves. It will keep for a day or so in the fridge. You can buy bottles of this in most asian groceries, although I think that fresh happens to taste better.
Alternatively, you could serve them with bottled sweet chili sauce, sriracha, or even plum sauce.
If you put a platter of these out at a party, expect them to disappear immediately, and expect people to say it's the best spring roll they've ever eaten. You can smile and tell them it's a Hanoi thing.